Literature and Multi-Racial Identity Analysis

Abolition and Passing

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Antislavery agitation in the mid-nineteenth century brought with it an increase in the depiction of people of black and white parentage. Authors used characters with a mixed race to dramatize the debate over national political identity. George Harris of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) is the son of a black mother and her white master. Harris becomes a strong spokesman in the novel for abolition, arguing that because black and white blood exist equally within him, they must enjoy equality in American social and political life. Frederick Douglass, in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) also argues that the existence of a class of slaves who are black and white destroys any theoretical justification for slavery, and that all individuals must be accorded the right of self-definition.

Given the many people of mixed race, the possibility of passing as white was real. Some racist novelists treated the issue hysterically, but many novels were written exposing how passing undermines any attempt to define people by racist precepts. William Wells Brown’s Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter (1853), the first novel published by an African American, tells the story of a mulatto woman who adopts a white identity, marrying a white man in the North. The House Behind the Cedars (1900) by Charles Waddell Chesnutt, who was himself of mixed race, is...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

The Twentieth Century

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The novel of passing continued to be prominent in the early part of the twentieth century, but with a slightly different focus. The condition of a mixed-race person, in addition to a denunciation of racism, became a metaphor for the alienating condition of modern life. Novels such as Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There Is Confusion (1924), Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) feature protagonists who vigorously assert individual identity even as society attempts alternately to impose or deny identity for them. Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) is an orphan who may or may not have a black father; even the hint that he may be part black grows into an obsession about his identity.

Edith Maud Eaton, known by the pen name Sui Sin Far, wrote autobiographical fiction and nonfiction about her experiences in the United States as the daughter of a Chinese woman and an Englishman. Experiencing extreme racism, Eaton embraced her Chinese identity in order to make a critique of American society. She was, in the early 1900’s, the first Chinese American feminist writer. Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) similarly wrote of her experiences in her largely autobiographical fiction, collected in American Indian Stories (1921). N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) charts his personal story as he tries to reclaim the Native American identity that had been overwhelmed by his European American cultural background. Gloria Anzaldúa, in her largely autobiographical Borderlands: The New Mestiza-La Frontera (1987) asserts her own mixed background and lesbianism to make multiracial identity a source of strength.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Berzon, Judith. Neither White nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Frederickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Jordan, Winthrop. White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969.

Sundquist, Eric. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.